Somewhere in between: Future uncertain for thousands of international college students in NH

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Quynh Pham came to study at SNHU in Manchester from Vietnam for an “American experience.” Courtesy Photo

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MANCHESTER, NH — Quynh Pham stands in her small kitchen in a Manchester apartment, frying pancakes with rice flour, coconut milk, pickled daikon and carrots. She says the savory aromas make her feel less homesick for her family in southeast Vietnam. 

Pham spent her first two years of college at the International University, Viet Nam National University in Ho Chi Minh City before transferring to Southern NH University’s (SNHU) rural campus on the Hookset border.  She says she was looking for an American experience to “become more independent, learn new cultures and make new friends.”

Now with New Hampshire’s stay-and-home orders in response to mitigating the spread of the new coronovirus, COVID-19, Pham’s only cultural interactions are with her two Vietnamese roommates. She attends classes online and studies online, a predicament she shares with domestic students. Yet while most of her college classmates are under their parents’ roofs, she remains thousands of miles away from home. 

In addition to managing loneliness, Pham and the more than 4,000 international college students in New Hampshire are facing another sober reality: the risk of going home. Unfavorable Visa restrictions, in place since the Trump administration, along with public health concerns, may prevent them from coming back. 

“I talked to my parents,” says Pham. “They asked me to stay here and protect myself.”

“Understandably,” says Darbi Roberts, associate dean of the School of International Engagement, “our international students are a much more vulnerable population in our current times.” 

Racist language to describe the coronavirus provoked an uptick in discrimination and xenophobia against Asian-Americans, says Roberts, and that extends to SNHU’s Asian students. Her staff reaches out to them to help calm their fears, while using social media almost daily to communicate the rapid-fire policy changes in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, or to explain why, for example, the National Guard’s military vehicles sit on campus and to clarify English-language terms like “social distancing.” 

Roberts also needs to dampen concerns over students’ F-1 visa status. The federal government prevents foreign students from taking online classes while in the United States. Fortunately, that requirement is currently waived. 

About 40 students will remain on campus through the summer, says Roberts, and about three-quarters of them are international. SNHU announced its remote delivery will continue through the end of August. 

As for how many global students will arrive in September 2020, “We don’t have a lot of clarity,” says Roberts. “The best-case scenario is all of this has cleared up by the fall.” 

Worst case, says Roberts, students will choose to defer, which already occurred with international students scheduled to arrive in January. 

What’s more predictable, according to a survey from the Education Advisory Board (EAB), is that colleges can expect a sharp drop in international enrollment. About a third of EAB respondents said they plan to fill seats by admitting more domestic students to their rosters.


EAB Survey results reflects high concern about the 2020 school year.

That drop is likely an extended predicament, says Alex Parnia, president of MSM, a global company that helps colleges engage international students. “The schools that were not prepared will have tremendous financial challenges going forward.” 

Nine out of ten campus leaders agree, citing overall financial stability as their top worry, according to a survey Inside Higher Ed conducted with Hanover Research about the long-term fallout from the COVID-19 crisis. 

Almost every school, no matter how prestigious, is feeling the full force of this calamity. 

In an email to the Dartmouth College community in Hanover, President Philip J. Hanlon acknowledged, “We will see declines in some of our key revenue streams.” 

Hanlon acknowledged the $15 million in lost undergraduate room and board revenue for the spring term as well as the 25 percent drop in institutional investments. “The subsequent loss of endowment value will impact an important revenue stream for Dartmouth now and into the future.”

International students typically pay the sticker price of tuition compared to the discounted fees students from the United States incur, say Parnia. “What I’m hearing from our partners is that they’re very concerned about what’s going to happen.”

Many institutions are postponing their replies and deposits beyond a May 1 date to allow both domestic and foreign students more time to decide where they’re enrolling, says Lindsay Addington, director of global engagement for the National Association for CollegeAdmission.  

Dartmouth College, with NH’s largest international student population of close to 1,400, isn’t budging on its May 1 deadline. 

At SNHU, Roberts says international students can commit as late as August and don’t need to make a deposit. 

At New England College in Henniker, spokesperson Jennifer Robertson says, “We will remain flexible as the situation evolves, surely allowing students more time to make decisions than in the past.”

Under a haze of uncertainty, attempts to make informed decisions about enrollment goals “are thrown out the window,” says Addington. Admissions officers can’t speculate which countries will bar flights to the United States or for how long. Also, staff can no longer travel, eliminating recruiting overseas face-to-face. 

“The next 60 to 90 days are going to be very critical about what will happen in the fall of 2020 and beyond,” says Parnia. 

Long before the current crisis, colleges were already experiencing dips in international enrollment. In 2018/19, the number of new foreign students declined around 10 percent, according to a press release from the Institute of International Education.

About 35 percent of SNHU’s international population comes from China and India, two countries hit hard by the novel virus. Meanwhile, the pandemic is spreading worldwide at an unprecedented speed. 

At SNHU, the strategy is diversification, says Roberts. That way, if any one country changes course, as Saudi Arabia did during the oil crash of 2016 when it cut funding for students abroad, the school isn’t left with a gaping hole among its global student body.

“This is going to be a much more dramatic impact on enrollment figures than 9/11 or the Great Recession of 2008,” says Addington. “But one of the things we’ve seen in international education over the last 30 years is this resiliency to bounce back from those setbacks.”


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